To Compose the Perfect Bite, Listen to Your Food
Eating engages all of the senses. There’s the smell wafting off a hot bowl of soup, for example, and the crisp crunch of a ripe vegetable. And don’t forget the sight of a juicy, glistening steak or, of course, the sweet taste of a donut. But how can sound enhance your meal? Dan Pashman, host of WNYC’s The Sporkful podcast, tells us how listening to your food can can influence taste, prevent cooking mishaps, and help you to compose the perfect bite.
Take a test to see how sound can change the sweet and bitter notes in food.
In a study conducted by Charles Spence, sweet flavors are associated with higher-pitched sounds and bitter flavors correspond to lower-pitched sounds. Did your results match up?
British Airways created a playlist to optimize the flavor of its food in-flight as seen here on Skift. We’ve compiled some of them below for an ideal (if quick) dinner party playlist! Enjoy.
Dan Pashman is host of WNYC’s The Sporkful podcast. He’s based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about evidence of a 10,000 year old massacre and the origins of violence in humans. But first, you foodies know that eating is an all-in sensory experience. There’s the smell of a steaming bowl of soup, the sight of a chocolatey ice cream sundae, and that crispy crunch of a perfectly cooked vegetable. All the sensory delights together create the taste of a dish.
But when was the last time you listened, you listened to the food close up? My next guest says that a little sonic sprinkling can enhance or deflate flavors, and we’re not just talking about that sizzling steak. Dan Pashman is no stranger to composing a harmonious meal. He’s the host of WNYC’s The Sporkful podcast and he joins us here in our CUNY studios. Welcome to Science Friday.
DAN PASHMAN: Thanks Ira.
IRA FLATOW: [BAG CRINKLING] I got bag of potato chips, they are the noisiest thing. They got the– first, you got to open the bag, then you have the– [CRUNCHING CHIPS] the crunch. (TALKING WITH MOUTH FULL) I can’t talk, you better take over.
DAN PASHMAN: All right, I’ll take it from here. Yeah, that the noise of that package is no accident. In fact, long before we had some of the research we have now, we now know that the people who designed the potato chip bags, they didn’t make them noisy for the sake of the chips. They made them noisy for the sensory experience because they understood that a noisy food was better complemented with a noisy package.
IRA FLATOW: Is that right?
DAN PASHMAN: Yes. And in fact, research has shown that if people hear the sound of that packaging being crumpled while they’re eating the chips, they will think that the chips are crisper, crunchier, fresher, better– only because that sound is being played in the background.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So if you took that sound away, they wouldn’t think the chip was as good?
DAN PASHMAN: Correct. And the effect is even magnified with the chips themselves. This researcher, Charles Spence, who’s my guest on the– one of my guests on The Sporkful podcast this week. He did this study with– he used Pringles. We’ll say their brand name because it’s integral to the science here because they’re uniform–
IRA FLATOW: Right.
DAN PASHMAN: So you can control for chip variation. And he had people bite into a chip in front of microphone and then alter the sound that they would hear in their ears. And what he found is that when he amplified the sound of the crunch, even if in reality it was the same, when he amplified the sound, people thought the chips were better.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And you’re always looking for the best way to eat and about composing the tastiest, spicy– do you have an ideal sound scape for your meals? What should the soundscape, when you eat?
DAN PASHMAN: Well, I think that like, with so many things in food, it’s relative. I think there are different sound scapes for different meals. There’s a famous chef in London, Heston Blumenthal, who has taken a cue from Charles Spencer’s research and when you order his seafood dishes at his restaurant in London he brings you an iPod. And you put the headphones on and you listen to sounds of the ocean and the waves crashing and the seagulls as you eat your shellfish. And the research shows that that does help to enhance the experience.
IRA FLATOW: So do you foresee that restaurants might be pairing this now in this age? Food with sound?
DAN PASHMAN: I think it makes a lot of sense and I hope that they’ll also, in the opposite direction, sometimes they’re pairing the wrong kind of sound with food. So you see more and more restaurants now, they put a lot of focus into the music they’re going to play. That’s part of the identity or the ambiance, but often the music is very loud. And research shows that when you’re surrounded by very high decibel level, your taste perception goes down. So loud music means the food will have less flavor.
It also works the same on an airplane where you have a high decibel level, and that’s one of the reasons why you get less taste perception on an airplane.
IRA FLATOW: Now I have a chocolate bar sitting in front of me.
DAN PASHMAN: Oh, this is going to be fun.
IRA FLATOW: We’re going to conduct a taste test, right?
DAN PASHMAN: This is an experiment live on the air on Science Friday.
IRA FLATOW: And what should I do here?
DAN PASHMAN: And then I should say to listeners at home, you can do this at home right now with coffee. If you don’t have dark chocolate handy, grab your mug of coffee. Here’s what I want to do, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
DAN PASHMAN: Want you to take a bite of that chocolate and really hold it in your mouth and savor. Our listeners at home do with your coffee.
IRA FLATOW: (TALKING WITH MOUTH FULL) Mmm, OK.
DAN PASHMAN: And I want you to really note how sweet or bitter it tastes. Concentrate on how sweet or bitter the flavor is and really kind of give a rating in your head. How sweet or bitter is it?
IRA FLATOW: OK, I’m doing it now. Want me to tell you what rating it is?
DAN PASHMAN: No, no. Just– you can get it in your head.
IRA FLATOW: OK, mm-hmm.
DAN PASHMAN: Now keep that chocolate in your mouth, continue to think about how sweet or bitter it is. And now we’re going to play some background music.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm.
DAN PASHMAN: What do you think?
IRA FLATOW: You know it was distracting, a little bit–
DAN PASHMAN: OK.
IRA FLATOW: –from the taste. But it didn’t taste as sweet.
DAN PASHMAN: OK, possibly more bitter.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm.
DAN PASHMAN: Now do you still have a good amount of chocolate in your mouth?
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
DAN PASHMAN: OK, so listeners at home, if you’re out of chocolate or if you need more coffee, take another sip, fill your mouth, think again about how sweet or bitter it tastes. And now listen to this.
IRA FLATOW: More pleasant. It’s a more pleasant experience. Tastes a little sweeter.
DAN PASHMAN: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
IRA FLATOW: Why? What’s going on here?
DAN PASHMAN: Well, as Charles Spence explains it, basically, when you have a food like a dark chocolate or a coffee that has a lot of varying and complementary or even contrasting notes like sweetness and bitterness, it could be hard for your brain to make sense of it all and to latch on to something. And these different pitches of sound and of music sort of act as ways to highlight certain features of a food.
It’s kind of like if you’re drinking a glass of wine and some wine expert says, oh, don’t you taste the notes of asparagus? Well, you know, now, of course, you taste it and as he says that.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
DAN PASHMAN: It’s a similar kind of function. And he actually explains it, it all goes to this idea that– we’ll play a clip from him of The Sporkful podcast of the way the mind and taste work together.
CHARLES SPENCE (ON PODCAST): The whole idea of taste and flavor is a construction of our mind. It is all kind of an illusion that we think we taste food in our mouth, when, in fact, most of the interesting stuff is happening in our nose. So it’s the flavors and tastes– the flavors are, full stop, kind of an illusion. And if I think about things like, there are certain smells that you will describe as sweet, things like caramel and vanilla, maybe strawberry. Smells do not actually have a taste, but I can use those sweet smells to almost trick your brain into tasting sweetness that isn’t there.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. You can do that. And we’ve heard then, he’s backing up the idea that smell is very important part of tasting.
DAN PASHMAN: Absolutely. And I just generally fascinated with this idea that so much of what we perceive to be happening in our mouths is actually happening in our brains.
IRA FLATOW: And sound can come in handy when you’re cooking, too. If you listen to your food you can tell if you’ve made a mistake, I understand.
DAN PASHMAN: Yeah, has this ever happened to you, Ira?
IRA FLATOW: Food preparation, yes.
DAN PASHMAN: You ever throw a piece of meat into the pan and you don’t hear any sound and you kind of feel like you hear a (MELODICALLY) wah-wah. It’s not the sound you wanted to hear because you didn’t hear a sizzle.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
DAN PASHMAN: You know–
IRA FLATOW: You have to turn on the heat.
DAN PASHMAN: You have to try to turn it on high so you get that sizzle going. But also in this episode of The Sporkful podcast, I talked to Kenji Lopez, who’s the food science guru from Serious Eats. And he took me into the test kitchen there, and he told me this great story. His first job in a fancy restaurant, he was like the bottom of the barrel prep chef and had to cut chives for 45 minutes straight for every station in the restaurant.
And after 45 minutes of slicing chives, the chef, the head chef of the restaurant walks by and stops and says, you’re cutting those wrong. She wasn’t looking. She didn’t look. She could only– she could tell that he was cutting them wrong just by the sound he was making when he was cutting. So first let’s play the sound of the wrong way to cut scallions, then we’ll describe what’s happening.
DAN PASHMAN: Sounds like a chopping.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, like an ax, almost.
DAN PASHMAN: That’s right. What’s happening there is that it is a chop. It’s straight down and you are essentially crushing plant cells and that creates a chemical reaction that releases lachrymators, which are the things in an onion that make you cry.
IRA FLATOW: But don’t you want that reaction? That taste, that full taste to mix those together?
DAN PASHMAN: I think most people prefer a little bit of that pungency of the onion but also with its natural sweetness.
IRA FLATOW: Ah, so you don’t get that if you crush it.
DAN PASHMAN: Right. If you crush it you get too much of that pungency. So what you want to do instead, rather than chopping straight down and crushing, you want to slice very smoothly and gently in a horizontal way so that you crush as few plant cells as possible. The sound should be almost imperceptible, but listen very closely.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, there’s almost a mindfulness about it, you know? Where you are focused on that and you’re going to make the cut just right and you have– you’re enjoying the whole experience by being mindful of what you’re doing at that moment.
DAN PASHMAN: Totally. And that’s something that I think definitely enhances the eating experience. And because sound is sort of the forgotten sense in eating and cooking, if you force yourself to focus on that thing you don’t normally focus on, I think you get more pleasure out of the eating experience and also be more focused. And sort of– I find cooking to be a very great way to relax and sort of decompression. And when you’re really focused on just the sound the scallions are making, I find it very peaceful.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, there’s a lot of– if you do think about it, and I’m thinking about as we’re speaking–
DAN PASHMAN: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: –there are a lot of sounds that go on when you’re preparing food. Even the sound of a wooden spoon on the frying– on a pan is very soothing, I think. And the idea– it’s like homey, it’s comfort food.
DAN PASHMAN: Very much. And sometimes I get frustrated when my wife uses a metal spoon to stir things in a metal pot. And it’s, I think, now that you say that, I realize that part of it is it’s like nails on the chalkboard sound to me. Whereas the wooden spoon is a homey sound. The metal sound just sounds abrasive.
IRA FLATOW: What it is about– I’m going to guess, you’re not crazy about people sitting down to eat dinner and then their phone, they’re on their phone all the time, right?
DAN PASHMAN: Right. No, absolutely. Actually, I did a piece a while back about eating alone for Valentine’s Day and I interviewed Deepak Chopra about mindfulness. And he talked about focusing on what you’re eating and putting away the distractions and really using all of your senses.
And right after I spoke to him I went out and got a slice of pizza. And it was one of the best slices of pizza. I didn’t look at my phone and I really took time to feel the pizza in my mouth, to feel like going down into my stomach. And to look closely at it, I can still picture in my head the little droplets of oil on the surface of the cheese and these little tributaries of sauce flowing down the slice of pizza.
IRA FLATOW: Paid attention.
DAN PASHMAN: Oh, that was good. I call that, total pizza awareness.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m sure marketers and companies are really interested in this kind of stuff, right? I mean how can sound be used beyond just selling us more stuff?
DAN PASHMAN: Right. Although interestingly, that’s one of the slightly controversial points of Charles Spencer’s research, is that a lot of his research is to help corporations sell their things more effectively. And there are some in his field who have criticized him for not delving more deeply into understanding of the why on a neurological level, and just sort of coming up with these clever takeaways.
IRA FLATOW: Have any exercises we could do to be more aware of sound while we’re preparing food? Or just be quiet and turn the TV off, turn the cell phone off and listen to the sound.
DAN PASHMAN: Well, I’ll give you one more quick one. If you have a chocolate bar handy from our previous experiment you can also learn a lot about a chocolate bar by the sound it makes when you break it in half.
That’s a pretty good sound.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.
DAN PASHMAN: You want a thud. You want a deep, deep, strong noise with a bit of bass to it. You don’t want a thin sound. And that is an indication of how well-tempered the chocolate is. Because when you make chocolate, there are different crystal forms that it can take. And the more desirable ones will make a lower sound.
IRA FLATOW: All right Dan, those are great ideas about cooking. And if you’re still hungry, you can subscribe to Dan Pashman’s The Sporkful podcast on iTunes. Thank you.
DAN PASHMAN: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: We also have our taste test. You can try yourself. It’s up on our website, it’s sciencefriday.com/foodsound.